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Weather related reasons school should close: When is it right to cancel?

Last Wednesday, Montgomery County Schools decided to close at the last minute after we got more snow than originally expected. That was after they planned a two-hour delay, and I came across some news stories from Nashville news outlets about several parents from all over Middle Tennessee being upset at these last-minute changes when the snow fell from skies.

The main issue was forecasting was hard. The forecasters have hard jobs making predictions based on models and knowledge. Snow can be tricky to forecast.

Sometimes, things can suddenly change, just like last Wednesday. Thus, calling a snow day is more difficult than most people think.

 

According to the Chicago Tribune, the decision to close involves multiple factors from bus safety to providing low-income students food and shelter from the weather.

Another challenge is that if the school gets closed too frequently, the school may have to make online assignments, create take-home homework packets or add more school days at the end of school year to make up lost time.

Freezing rain, much trickier to forecast than snow, can be more dangerous than snow depending on accumulation. Even a mere quarter inch of ice in forecast warrants ice storm warnings.

The video below features damage in Tennessee from a 2015 ice storm:

From my personal experiences, freezing rain is a slam dunk for school closure for almost all of the cases because even a minor (.1 inch) glaze of ice can become extremely dangerous to drive on. Buses are far more vulnerable to dangerous road conditions because of their larger size.

Snow and freezing rain are not the only weather concerns that impact decisions on closing schools, calling for a delay or even keeping students past normal times. Other types of weather concerns I have read and heard about were tornadoes, severe weather, extreme cold, extreme heat and high winds.

Tornadoes / Severe Weather – This one is very complicated, and it largely depends on a couple of factors – timing, intensity, construction of school buildings, type of event, preparedness and risk tolerance.

In my opinion, this is one of the most difficult and perhaps controversial weather scenarios to make decisions for schools.  This one seems to be a recent trend, especially after 2013, and I do not like that idea.

Forbes article brought this controversy to light.  Some students lived in trailers or poorly built houses, the article explained. Some students were not supervised when they get home, and they often ended up playing games or watching television instead of monitoring the weather. Also, some people did not know what to do in case of severe weather.

These were the reasons why I was strongly against closing schools due to severe weather. The truth was the schools were usually much safer than some homes, and there were often adults there watching students.

My suggestion is to lock students inside for the duration of severe weather if it was daytime- evening event or allow students to have supervised lock-in for a nocturnal event if the students live in trailers or poorly-built houses and the severe weather threat is substantial (ie. Enhanced and above).

Extreme Cold– During last week’s Arctic outbreak due to a weak polar vortex, so many schools in the Midwest closed when the temperatures plunged to minus 20 to minus 40 F.

The wind chills were not helping because they were in minus 30 to minus 70 F range at its worst in which they became very dangerous, according to the Weather Channel articles.  This was also the source of controversy when Gov. Matt Bevin (R-KY) criticized school closure due to extreme cold, according to Louisville Courier-Journal.

At that time in Kentucky, temperatures were hovering around zero, and the wind chills were in -10 to -20 F range. Some supported his comments on closure when he said that the schools were getting soft on students, but some disagreed because safety was a priority.

Al Roker, a longtime weatherman, called Bevin a ‘nitwit’ in response, and the weatherman added that the governor was not familiar with weather or educators.  Other Kentucky educational groups and teachers also sided with Roker.  Personally, I disagreed with the governor because some people were poorly prepared for the unusually cold weather.

Extreme Heat – In Tennessee, schools closing due to 90 to 100+ degrees heat are almost unheard of because the heat is a normal part of life in the South.  When I learned that there were closures due to hot weather, I thought it was silly at first, to be honest.

 

It is not unusual to see Excessive Heat warnings (heat index above 110 degrees) in western portions of the state for a few days out of every summer. Heat often begins from late April to May and persists into September or even October when the schools are in session.

The high school I graduated from is a year-round school, and the first week of school tends to be on last week of July when the weather is often hot and steamy.  For the Northeast, it is very different.

Northeastern locations do not normally experience 90-degree heat with 100+ F heat index around Labor Day.  According to Fortune, some schools decided to start before Labor Day last fall to compensate for potential snow days. Ironically, that resulted in more closures due to heat waves.  My suggestion to improve that was to move all classes two to three hours later to cover the hottest part of the day as long as the schools have running ACs.

High Winds – It’s not something that is commonly heard in Middle Tennessee except for tornadoes and severe thunderstorms, but high winds tend to occur in mountainous areas, just near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as result of a phenomenon called mountain waves, according to NWS Morristown.

As a longtime resident of East Tennessee, before I attended APSU, I often heard about high wind warnings issued for those areas, though most of the valley normally would not experience the strong winds.

Those winds can exceed hurricane-force (74 or more mph) which pose hazards to school buses. Although as far as I have researched, the schools in the areas do not normally close despite tropical storm to hurricane force winds, mainly because those winds are a regular occurrence in the area.

In the case of Gatlinburg public schools, a high school had its roof damaged by 70 mph winds, and the school administration announced that they would send students home because three schools lost their power.  Some students had to ride four-wheel drive vehicles owned by the county instead of buses, according to WBIR.

I am a trained storm spotter and I spent years studying meteorology in my free times.  Those blogs reflect my opinions on weather-related topics with some light humor and commentaries.

About Ivy MacDaniel

I am a sophomore who’s majoring in physics with mathematics minor. I love weather, especially thunderstorms and tornadoes. My hobbies are chess, drawing, and outdoor activities. I am a trained storm spotter.

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